One spring day in the early 1970’s I was perhaps not quite dead broke but I was very surely badly bent.
I was living in an incredibly remote region of British Columbia and needed to make some money
There were two ways to make money in wilds woods of British Columbia those days, either cut trees down or get into treeplanting. I’d spent part of the winter working as a ‘faller’ cutting giant trees down far to the north where a dam was being built on the Columbia River. The lake that would form behind the dam would flood a vast valley of ancient forest and the government wanted as much of that forest cut down so that the logs could be salvaged once the reservoir formed. Being a 6 foot 2 inch mountain man I took a job with a chainsaw felling trees, but that’s another story.
What was happening where I was living in the tiny village of hippies and Quakers at the North end of Kootenay Lake – Argenta, was tree planting. There was work across Kootenay Lake from Kaslo and many miles up a wildly rough logging road into the high Purcell Mountains. I took the job which meant every morning at dawn getting on a rusty old forestry barge in Kaslo and heading across Kootenay Lake.
Once on the other side Forestry trucks, called ‘crummies’ would shuffle us about 10 miles up a side valley to where loggers had clearcut the old growth forest and what they had not hauled off the steep mountain sides, the ‘slash’ they had burned. The slopes were a jumble of twisted broken logs, branches, ash and charcoal. If it were not for the surrounding beauty of the high alpine peaks of the Purcell Mountains one would have surely declared this place as hell on earth.
For about a month I worked as a treeplanter there being paid minimum wage for maximum work. That work amounted to hiking straight up and down steep mountain slopes covered with the burnt debris and stopping every eight feet to plant a 12 inch tall seedling of Douglas Fir or Sitka Spruce. Over the course of a long 8 hour day those of us, like me early 20 something wilderness mountain men, might plant 800-1000 trees. It was hard hard work for little pay.
The chit chat on the slopes was about how some ‘hippy’ down the lake had formed his own treeplanting company and working on those projects one was paid by the tree, often as much as 10 cents per tree. Now that sounded pretty good as we were earning about $40 dollar per day planting 1000 trees on the job I was on. $100 per day was a near mythical wage at that time.
Finding and blazing the trail
Toward the end of the job I was chatting with one of the government forestry inspectors who was checking on the quality of the planting. I asked him about how such work was contracted out by the BC Forest Service and he told me there was no mystery at all. Every Forest Service office had a list of ‘treeplanting contracts’ that were open to a competitive bidding process for spring and fall planting seasons.
Cool I thought and later that summer as I was driving past the Lardeau Forest Service office at the North end of Kootenay Lake I stopped in. At the desk I asked the ‘forest ranger’ how I might find out about treeplanting contract tender requests and I was handed a large black binder. (Too bad he wasn’t wearing a Smokey Bear Hat, you’ll have to use your minds eye to picture him so.) In the binder were all of the treeplanting projects the office planned to conduct starting in a couple months time. I asked how I could bid on the contracts and was told there was a $25 dollar bid deposit and some forms to fill out and that was it. Whomever bid the lowest price per tree for the planting would be awarded the contract.
OK what the hell I thought I should do this and I obtained copies of the detailed treeplanting site descriptions and maps. I was required to make a site inspection before I would be allowed to bid. Over the course of a few days I visited several planting sites, paid my $25 dollar bidder deposits, and placed my bids. The average price per tree being bid in recent similar contracts was 15-20 cents per tree! Holy moly.
My plan was to assemble a bunch of my back-to-land hippy friends and instead of living in logging camp trailer bunk houses and paying the camps for meals and board we’d rough it and pitch our tents right on the treeplanting sites, build a cookshack out of saplings and polyethylene, and save a bundle. Being hippy socialists the idea was to take the expenses of running the projects and then divide what was left by the number of trees planted and everyone would be paid piecemeal for each tree they planted.
My bids were in and in August I was notified that I’d won one of the contracts. As I recall it was to plant about 200,000 trees at my bid price of 17 cents per tree starting in September. We’d have to complete the work before mid-October which is when the winter snows might hit. I rounded up just over 10 of my backwoods friends who I knew were good treeplanters men and women both.
I had to borrow money from family to buy the supplies for the project which included the planting tool called a ‘hodad’, treebags, sundry survey tape and bits, cooking pots and pans, a big metal wood cook stove, eating utensils, and some big rolls of 4 and 6 mil polyethylene plastic sheeting.
Many of us had our pick up trucks, chain saws, and camping gear so the logistics was not difficult to orchestrate. I found a local backwoods woman who said she could and would cook for the crew and help buy all the food needed, all extremely healthy hippy food and lots of it. We were set.
Do It With Joy
I won’t say that first project went without a hitch but it worked and everyone ended up earning about 12 cents per tree. Since we were living on site most were planting 1000-1200 trees per day, that was a fortune $120-$150 per day! We finished just as the first snow flew and everyone was pretty danged happy to be heading into the winter with a great nest egg of cash and some weeks of employment that for many put them over the top for government UIC for the winter, weekly unemployment insurance payments. Life was sweet.
What followed was the next year I started bidding and winning treeplanting contracts in several regions of British Columbia. The bigger and better paying contracts I discovered were the most remote and my style of hippy mountain man camping on the planting site could hands down do the work at the best price.
So the question for me began where were the most interesting places to plant trees and there were/are some pretty spectacular wild places in British Columbia. One favourite treeplanting location in need was on the Dean River on the North Coast, the Dean River was one of the most famous fly-fishing rivers in the world, and I was a fly fisherman so off I went.
Another planting site was the wild and romantic Kingcome River of the central coast, location of one of the most famous nature books “I Heard The Owl Call My Name” so add restoring it’s devasted forest ecosystems (and own habitat) to the list. Any many more.
It was a great life for a time with good friends and good work saving the world while working each spring and fall for a few months. That allowed from summers of canoe and kayak trekking and winters of cross country skiing into the wildest places on earth. We did indeed ‘do it with joy‘ which became the title of a movie made by several of my treeplanting friends.
Tranformation of Hell into Heaven – It Just Works
When I tired of the 365 day wilderness life I moved on to Victoria, the capital of British Columbia and with a professor of ecology at the University of Victoria moved into ecosystem restoration of lands damaged by mining, highway construction, and doing ecological inventories of the even more exotic and unique locations that were proposed for inclusion into the International Ecological Reserves program. I was glad to be able to work on wild and untouched pristine ecosystems in addition to tending to the worst wounded landscapes.
This latter work led me more and more to coastal and island environments and eventually to my work today to restore the devastated ocean pastures of the worlds seven seas.
The treeplanting company I created “Coast Range” was operated for some years by my partner and eventually sold to new owners. Surely over the years my company, born out of love and a desire to live with nature, has been responsible for planting many scores of millions if not hundreds of millions of trees.
Today the trees I planted with my friends more than 40 years grow in forests so lush and large few who might walk in those seemingly wild forests today would ever know that in my single human lifetime they have recovered from a burned and blackened hell into a bit of heaven on earth.
Mark Twain became more than an inspiration in my life when as a young man I read what he had written,.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.
I’m still sailing far away from those safe harbors. Join me.